NEW PORT RICHEY — You might do a double-take when you walk into the St. Thomas Aquinas Early Childhood Center and find preschoolers pounding golf tees into pumpkins.
Loralee Janus, a teacher in the 3-year-old program, promises there's learning taking place.
"What they're doing before they pound those tees is count them," she explained. "While they pound them, they're learning concepts such as density and surface tension. Eventually they open the pumpkins and see what's inside."
That kind of hands-on learning for the youngest students just starting to explore their world has been a hallmark of the program at St. Thomas Aquinas, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month.
The program is still run by Cindy McKallip, the parishioner who was tapped in 1987 by then-pastor Father Thomas Earner to start a children's day program at the church. McKallip, who had taught four years at St. Petersburg Catholic High School before taking a 10-year hiatus to raise her two daughters, agreed — on one condition.
"I didn't want to open a day care center," said McKallip, the program's administrator. "I wanted to open a school."
Earner gave his blessing, and McKallip launched the center that fall with two rooms, two teachers and 17 students, many of whom were the tiniest parishioners of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church.
Today the program at the church on Old County Road 54 has 90 students, ranging in age from 2 to 5, spread across five classrooms. Some of the students are the children of previous students. Some of the staff have seen their own children and grandchildren pass through the school.
The program retains its Catholic core, with daily prayer time, faith-based charity projects and visits from the pastor, Father Mike Lydon, who always comes with a guitar in his hand to sing with the students. But it's also welcoming to children of other faiths.
"We want this to be a place for children to learn and grow," McKallip said.
The center now has 10 teachers, including several who have been with the school since its early years. And they share McKallip's vision for an education-oriented program that helps children feel secure in their world and curious about life.
Aside from pounding on pumpkins, the preschoolers learn other science concepts such as temperature, magnification, weather and propulsion through the use of kits, toys and simple tools. They study toy animals and learn housekeeping skills in play kitchens.
"I want it to be clean so you can sit there," said 3-year-old Isabella Solomon, smiling as she swept the carpet for visitors.
The students also study letters and numbers with flash cards and computer programs. They play kid-friendly musical instruments, write stories, draw pictures and read books.
And some of them are reading Jane Austen. Well, sort of.
"We have a block book 'BabyLit' version of Pride and Prejudice written by 'Little Jane Austen'," said Janus. She added with a smile: "The parents are surprised when I tell them their kids are reading Pride and Prejudice."
After all these years, McKallip dotes on her students. As she passes them in the hallways or sees them in the classrooms, she smiles and greets each by name.
"I can't believe it's been 25 years," said McKallip, surveying the grounds one recent morning, soaking in the laughter and chatter of happy youngsters. "This is our school."